A brutal winter storm smacked the coastal Southeast with a rare blast of snow and ice Wednesday, hitting parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina with their heaviest snowfall in nearly three decades.
The same system then strengthened into a “bomb cyclone” as it rolled up the East Coast, bringing hurricane-force winds, coastal flooding and up to a foot of snow.
At least 17 deaths were blamed on dangerously cold temperatures that for days have gripped wide swaths of the U.S. from Texas to New England.
A winter storm warning extended from the Gulf Coast of Florida’s “Big Bend” region all the way up the Atlantic coast. Forecasters said hurricane-force winds blowing offshore on Thursday could generate 24-foot (7-meter) seas.
Schools in the Southeast called off classes just months after being shut down because of hurricane threats, and police urged drivers to stay off the roads in a region little accustomed to the kind of winter woes common to the Northeast.
In Savannah, snow blanketed the city’s lush downtown squares and collected on branches of burly oaks for the first time in nearly eight years. William Shaw, a Savannah native, used baby steps to shuffle along a frozen road from his home to the post office.
“It almost seems the town is deserted just like in the last hurricane,” said Shaw, 65. “There’s no one on the street. It’s got a little eerie feeling.”
Dump trucks spread sand on major streets in Savannah ahead of the storm and police closed several bridges, overpasses and a major causeway because of ice.
By the time the morning’s dreary sleet and rain turned to fluffy snow, Savannah came out to play. Families with children flocked to Forsyth Park near the downtown historic district for snowball fights. The National Weather Service recorded 1.2 inches (3 centimeters) of snow – Savannah’s first measurable snowfall since February 2010 and the first that exceeded an inch (2.5 centimeters) in 28 years.
Across the Georgia-South Carolina line in Charleston, the weather service reported 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) as the snow was winding down at 5 p.m. That’s the most snowfall in Charleston since December 1989, and plenty for Chris Monoc’s sons, ages 4 and 2, to go sledding outside their home near the city’s iconic Ravenel Bridge.
“They probably will be teenagers the next time something like this happens, and that’s kind of sad,” Monoc said. “But we’ll enjoy it while it is here.”
Forecasters in South Carolina say wind chill readings could drop as low as 0 degrees (-18 Celsius) Friday morning.
Utilities reported about 1,500 customers without electric service Thursday. The biggest problems were in Charleston and Berkeley counties.
Schools were delayed or closed in the eastern part of the state.
Airports shut down in Savannah, Charleston and elsewhere as airlines cancelled 500 flights Wednesday, and at least 1,700 more were cancelled Thursday. Interstate 95 was nearly an icy parking lot for almost all of its 200 miles (322 kilometers) in South Carolina. Troopers couldn’t keep up with the number of reported wrecks which numbered in the hundreds.
In Tallahassee, Florida, Michigan transplant Laura Donaven built a snowman 6 inches (15 centimeters) tall. The city tweeted that snow fell there for the first time in 28 years.
The weather service said the winter storm would intensify into a “bomb cyclone” and dump more than 8 inches (20 centimeters) of snow on the Boston area on Thursday and at least half a foot (15 centimeters) of snow in the New York City region.
Meteorologists have been using the term “bomb” for storms for decades, but the phrase went viral on social media on Wednesday. A storm is a bomb – or bombogensis happens – when it drops 24 millibars of pressure in 24 hours. This storm was expected to intensify at twice that rate, said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.
Mississippi’s largest city said record cold broke water mains, leaving some customers with little or no water flow.
Jackson city spokeswoman Kai Williams said Wednesday evening that the city knew of 37 separate water main breaks that it attributed to cold. The city has declared an emergency and is hiring outside contractors to help repair water main breaks.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency through Friday for 28 counties. School systems on the Alabama coast waived uniform requirements so students could bundle up.
Florida’s largest theme parks announced that water attractions such as Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay and SeaWorld’s Aquatica were closed. Temperatures were running well below normal for this time of year, and the lows are expected to hover right around freezing.
Making the most of the South’s bitter cold snap, the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro offered discounted tickets for those willing to brave the cold to see polar bears frolic in their kind of weather, along with Arctic foxes and elk. African elephants, lions and gorillas were sheltered out of public view.
As the snow moved out of North Carolina, forecasters warned the cold temperatures would stay behind.
The National Weather Service had blizzard, winter storm warnings and winter weather statements in effect in half of North Carolina’s 100 counties on Thursday.
Wind chill warnings and advisories were in effect in 54 counties for Thursday and in some cases, for Friday as well.
Duke Energy reported about 2,400 customers still without electricity Thursday morning. Nearly half of those were in Craven County around New Bern.
Associated Press reporters Seth Borenstein in Washington; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; Tammy Webber in Indianapolis; Jeff Martin in Atlanta; Freida Frisaro in Miami; Brendan Farrington and Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida; Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina; Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina; Rebecca Santana in New Orleans; Jeff Amy in Jackson, Mississippi and Stephen Morton in Savannah contributed to this story.